Self-Portraits Set This Film Photographer Free From Emotional Abuse

All self-portraits and images by Mariangela Serrano. Used with permission.

“I started taking self-portraits and photographs from a place of pain instead of a place of joy.” Mariangela Serrano, a Venuzalen born photographer, found herself locked in an abusive relationship. A once optimistic, confident creator, soon became riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem. But photography would become her savior. It would give her the message she needed to realize something was wrong. In other words, photography set her free. Not only that, photography acted as her anchor in life and was her way of medicating to heal emotional wounds. The future now looks bright for this talented photographer. She’s soon to be married, and photography remains a constant in her life. We spoke to her to learn more about her painful experiences, how life is for an immigrant in New York, and how she would like her life to look in the future.

Phoblographer: Hey, Mariangela! Can you tell us how you first became connected to the medium of photography?

MS: Hi there! Photography was something I was surrounded by as a little girl. My grandmother and I have a very strong bond. She used to dress me up and style me so I could have my photo taken either by her at home or at a photo studio. I think that’s what created in me a spark of curiosity for photography. When I was about five or six years old, I was asked to take a photo of the woman of my family while we were having lunch. I vividly remember what it felt like to hold the camera, while not exactly knowing what I was doing. But hearing the sound of the film advancing the camera, it all gave me a feeling of needing to learn more about photography. I think that’s when I first became connected to the craft.

“I feel incredibly thankful to be able to call this place my new home.”

Phoblographer: You originate from Venezuela, what made you want to come to New York?

MS: Growing up in Venezuela, I always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker, a reporter, or a journalist of some kind. Unfortunately, my country is facing a really difficult time with one of the most detrimental economic crises’. That, alongside political oppression, has made basic things like going to school, buying groceries, or enjoying an evening out with friends really difficult. I’ve witnessed first-hand acts of violence that planted seeds of fear and uncertainty in my day to day life. So in an attempt to develop myself in a different environment, I chose New York. Because in American movies and TV shows, you always see artists blooming here. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I always romanticized being part of this city. I feel incredibly thankful to be able to call this place my new home.

Phoblographer: What is like trying to find your way in the creative field while in a country that’s not your original home?

MS: I’m still trying to figure that out. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do, even if you live in your original country. For a couple of years, I was trying really hard to create a presence online and publish my work via Tumblr or Instagram. But as these social networks grew more and more, I realized that wasn’t necessarily the way to go, at least not for me. Nonetheless, putting myself out there allowed me to meet a lot of really inspiring people and that lead me to create more work. For example, it allowed me to work on more projects and be part of gallery exhibits. For that, I am incredibly thankful.

“Self-portraiture, it’s such a special thing for me. It has created a bridge for me to be able to understand parts of me that I wasn’t aware of.”

These days I find myself caring very little about finding my personal spot in the creative field. Instead, I create more work, experiment with different mediums, and maybe in a couple of years after creating a strong portfolio, I can focus more on creating public relationships.

Phoblographer: Part of your work is self-portraiture. How do self-portraits impact the relationship you have with yourself both mentally and physically?

MS: Self-portraiture, it’s such a special thing for me. It has created a bridge for me to be able to understand parts of me that I wasn’t aware of. It’s so beautiful to see myself aging, changing both mentally and physically. When I first moved to the USA, I lived in Connecticut for a couple of years. I lived with some of my family members and at the time, I had no friends and I was still learning English. When I look back at photographs for this period, I again feel that sense of uncertainty and wonder the seventeen-year-old me used to have. I’m so attached to my self-portraits. They’re a mixture of nostalgia and tenderness, but more importantly, over the years, they have become a point of reference, a way of self reflexion for me.

Phoblographer: Our readers love film photography. Can you tell us more about your set up, please?

MS: When it comes to my set up I am pretty simple. The first couple of years as I was learning how to shoot film I used a point and shoot camera, the Pentax PC-35 AF. This camera has such a good lens which make portraits look beautiful and has the right balance between softness and sharpness. More importantly, it has a self-timer which is so convenient! Later I bought a Contax G1 with a 45mm lens. I love this setup, especially because the Contax has a beautiful design. It’s a bit heavy but it feels good in the hands. But honestly, out of all of my cameras, my favorite one is the Mamiyaflex. This is my first medium format camera and there is something about the waist level finder that makes me love it so much.

I recently got a Rollei 35SE and I’m still trying to get used to it. I personally don’t love it just yet but maybe it’s because it’s pretty small and delicate. I almost don’t wanna use it out of fear I’ll break it! My favorite rolls of film are Lomography 800, Lomography Red Scale, Agfa Vista 400, Ilford 3200, Provia 100 F, and Kentmere 400. Although to be honest, I often get whatever expired film I can find on Ebay hahaha!

Phoblographer: How confident are you in photographic identity? Is it something you think you’ve found, or you’re still searching for?

MS: I am confident in the sense I have found a point of direction for my style of photography and my process of creation. But I am still exploring and searching for my photographic identity, in the sense that everything still feels pretty new to me. Right now, I’m trying to learn more about other photographers that inspire me. I also love experimenting with filmmaking and painting. Hopefully, in the future, my work can expand to a new form of photographic storytelling. Also to moving images and a collection of collages but as for now I’m taking it one step at the time.

Phoblographer: In one of your YouTube videos, you open up about narcissistic emotional abuse. That must have – and still may be – a difficult experience for you. What kind of impact does an experience like that have on your ability to create?

MS: That experience was pretty detrimental to me. Photography was something we both (the narcissist and I) had in common. I used to “praise” him for his work and at the beginning, he used to motivate me and push me to create new work. But with time he kept silent every single time I showed him my most recent work. He gave no feedback, no expression, just complete silence. Over time that kind of behavior made me doubt myself and left me feeling as if my photographs had no value.

I stopped developing my films and overall I was just incapable of looking back to my old joyful images because I couldn’t recognize who I was, I felt pretty disconnected with myself. I think I developed a sense of insecurity when it comes to my work. I often feel as if I have the “impostor syndrome.” But I’m working on myself and healing those emotional wounds as well as understanding that all of those things I went through don’t define me. They are no longer part of my life.

“Every morning I’ll see it and say to myself: “If you go back to him, he will do this to you again!”

Phoblographer: Did photography in any way help you to heal/better manage emotional wounds?

MS: Yes, absolutely! When I look back to the photographs of 2017 and 2018 I can see the gradual change in my appearance. I can see when I started being emotionally abused, confused, and tormented. Photography also helped me get out of that relationship. There is one particular photo that truly saved my life. Without that photo, I would’ve probably stayed longer in the relationship. It was so shocking to see myself suffering so much that I decided to print that photo and put it on my wall. Every morning I’ll see it and say to myself: “If you go back to him, he will do this to you again!” And that helped a lot. In a way photography allowed me to keep a record of everything I went through.

Phoblographer: Finally, what do you hope the future looks like for you?

MS: To be honest, I don’t really know. Before, I used to put a lot of pressure on myself but this year I have learned that sometimes you just need to let life happen. In general, I hope to make a photo book within the next couple of years, I also would love to make short films. Nothing too fancy or elaborated but something that I can create a base for future projects. I am currently stepping into a new chapter of my life. I’ll be getting married soon, which it’s exciting since my fiancé is a photographer and works in the filmmaking industry as well! I just want to focus on my marriage. I may document my process of womanhood alongside my partner. I don’t have a particular vision of how that looks, but we will see.

You can enjoy more of Mariangela’s work by visiting her Instagram. Also, be sure to check out her YouTube channel.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host of professional photographers within the industry.